It’s All Grace Around You

Yesterday I preached my first sermon as a United Methodist minister.

I’ve preached probably somewhere around a dozen sermons in my life, but this was my first one as a pastor.  My first one in my first appointment.  My first one that felt like… like it counted.  I had images in my head of angels on the sidelines of heaven holding up scorecards (the Olympics’ beginning this weekend clearly didn’t help my nerves or my imagination).

I have been nervous before preaching before, but it has always been the typical, “Oh, I hope I don’t stumble over my words, I hope I don’t forget that gesture, I hope no one falls asleep.”  This time was different.  This time my thoughts were, “I hope my theology isn’t heretical, I hope I don’t accidentally call God by a masculine pronoun, I hope the other pastors don’t talk negatively about this sermon behind my back” (actually I’m still nervous about that last one– though this reflects much, much more on my own insecurities, and horror stories I’ve heard from other churches, than anything I ought to realistically expect in my current church).

As I sat up there in the profoundly uncomfortable Preaching Throne, as it should be called, I found myself for the first time in my life wondering if I was actually going to puke from nerves.  My stomach felt alarmingly vacuous and my lips tingled and my legs whipped around restlessly under my alb.  The ladies closest to me in the choir gave me their loudest and most encouraging smiles as the Scripture was read and my mic went live, so that I could hear—or imagined I could hear—my labored breathing amplified throughout the colossal sanctuary, which had suddenly tripled in size and crowd, at least in my frantic mind.

I have known my Scripture passage for weeks, and have been researching it and praying on it and thinking on it for weeks.  But by Friday morning, I still had nothing on paper, just a bunch of scribbles and notes with big arrows, exclamation points, and ellipses in my journal.  I was beginning to panic.

Because God is gracious, everything flowed by Friday night, so that I had SOMETHING on the page, and Saturday found me with that “Aha!” moment around 11:45am, and I nestled into the idea that this might just work…

But when you’re sitting there waiting for the final hymn, prayer, or Scripture to be over before you have to climb into that pulpit, all your sense of security disappears.

I wanted so desperately, you see, to impress the congregation.  To charm them with my wit and poetry.  And perhaps an even more ardent goal was to impress my coworkers.  They’re all master preachers, each with groupies in the congregation and all the right theology.  I was terrified I wouldn’t live up to their legacy.  What could be worse than being that pastor that people go, “Ugh, not her preaching. Let’s just go home.”  Which really happens.

So I agonized over this Scripture and this sermon, all but weeping as I stared desperately at the blinking cursor on my empty Word document for days on end.

What I forgot, though, is that we are Methodists, and our inheritance, our bread, our butter, our lifeblood, is GRACE.  I remembered my old policy: When you don’t know what to preach, preach grace.  So I wrote what I knew: God’s grace.

When she found me with my teeth chattering and lips nearly bitten off in my office before the service began, one of my fellow associates said to me, “What are you afraid of?  It’s all grace around you.”

It’s all grace around you.

God’s grace, the grace of warmed hearts looking up at you from the congregation, the grace of the choir’s energy practically buoying me up, the grace of friends who looked across the chancel at me and gave me a subtle thumbs up, the grace of my mother sitting in the fourth pew back on the right with her proudest smile on, and the grace of my father with tears in his eyes.  The grace, even, that my senior minister was out of town and thus I didn’t have a preaching professor-slash-superstar appraising me as I preached!

It’s all grace around you.

I wrote these words at the top of my sermon and stared anxiously at them as the service marched on toward my sermon.  And the most important “Aha!” moment of all came in that place—

It is not about charming my congregation, impressing my colleagues, making my old preaching professors proud.  It’s not even fractionally about those things.  It’s about magnifying the name of Jesus Christ.  It’s about breathing the Spirit and letting Her inhabit your lungs and your vocal chords.  It’s about stepping boldly into the presence of God and declaring what you see there to your fellow travelers.

I pray that I did that on Sunday, even in a small or imperfect way.  And regardless, it is a marvelous comfort to know that it’s all grace around me.

(Ps- [shameless self-promotion alert]- if you’d like to see, read, or listen to my sermon, you can find it here, listed as “July 29, 2012: Rev. Erin Beall, Associate Minister: 2 Samuel 11:1-15)

This is Not a Post about Feminism. This is a Post about Saintliness.

I’ve always had trouble with self-confidence, and that, my friends, is something to be proud of.

No, I’m not being snarky. Think about it: American culture values self-doubt, even self-loathing. (They call it humility, but it’s not real humility.)  Women spend hours on our makeup trying to look “natural.” In movies and books, we are presented constantly with (especially female) protagonists who are utterly oblivious to themselves—clumsiness is cute, not knowing how to wear high heels is endearing, and not understanding “why he would want me!” is the absolute height of virtue– but in the meantime they pull off flawless physical beauty and grace, despite their adorable ignorance.

We are not supposed to be in touch with our bodies. We are not supposed to be aware of our beauty. We are not allowed to know that we are wonderful.

The newest teen sensation is the boy band One Direction. I heard their breakout hit yesterday and this all fell into place. The main line of the hook goes like this: “You don’t know you’re beautiful… that’s what makes you beautiful.”

What is this nonsense?

When you are in that dreadful, dreadful place called adolescence, with your skin cracking open and your scalp practically pooling oil and your sweat glands far too overactive, you are told again and again—by your mother, your pastor, all adults who know that there is more to life than middle school—to have self-confidence. “You are beautiful!” they lie through their teeth. And you stare past them miserably and ooze self-hatred.

Then you grow up, though, and the story changes. Your mother and your pastor may still tell you that you are beautiful, and to have self-confidence, because in my opinion that is the essence of saintliness– telling people they are beautiful, inside and out. But you are not allowed to believe it. If you do, you are labeled: haughty, snobby, full of herself, princess, bitch.

You must rise with the dawn to scrub, polish, cover, curl, straighten, exercise, and adorn yourself so that you will be presentable. And you walk into the presence of your peers, coworkers, judges, friends, and duck your head with the required amount of hangdog embarrassment

“Oh, this old thing?” “No, I am having such a bad hair day!” “Don’t look too closely, I have dark circles under my eyes.”

But I am not writing about fashion, makeup, or even feminism.

I am writing about the lie that we are told, especially we who are women, we who are young, we who are children of God, that we are only wonderful if we do not know that we are wonderful. That, ultimately, we are not allowed to be confident in ourselves.

We are even given Biblical precedent for this, at times. When God calls the prophets and leaders of Scripture, they always protest—“Surely not I, Lord!” “You’ve got the wrong guy…” “I’m too young” “I’m a woman” “I’m not fit.”  Yes, this is true; there are typically one or two verses of protesting. But then the protesting ends. They stand up and follow God. They stand up, and they believe in God’s promises to them.

I don’t get the sense that God had to keep pep-talking Mary into being Jesus’ mom once she’d agreed, after her initial bafflement and spluttering protests. In fact, Luke says in The Voice translation that after the angel left Mary, she “immediately got up and hurried” to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, where Elizabeth gave her (actually, the Voice says Elizabeth shouted) a bunch of swell compliments– “You are blessed, Mary!” “How fortunate you are, Mary!” (Luke 1.42-45)

And Mary’s response is telling. She does not duck her head demurely and say, “Oh, no Elizabeth, I’m not blessed, stop it, you’re making me blush! I don’t know why God picked me, maybe it was all a big mistake, or a dream, maybe I had too much wine with dinner last night…” Instead, she responds with the confidence of a woman of God:

“Now and forever, I will be considered blessed by all generations. For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1.48-49)

What would it look like if we stopped this cheap, fake humility and lived with thankful, joyful hearts before the Lord because of all that God has done for us? What if, instead of being shy about our gifts and graces, we shouted them from the rooftops– and what if we were able to do this, not for our own glory, but for God’s?

“For though I am God’s humble servant, God has noticed me,” Mary said (Luke 1.48).

I don’t think God has called us to not know that we’re wonderful, beautiful. Genesis says that God looked upon us after we’d been created and called us good. Are we not allowed to say this, too? Are we not allowed to hold the opinion of God– that we are good, and beautiful, made in God’s image?

What makes you wonderful is NOT the belief that you are not wonderful. What makes you wonderful is the fact that “the Mighty One has done great things for” you, as Mary said (Luke 1.49).
What makes you beautiful is NOT the belief that you are not beautiful. What makes you beautiful is the fact that you are cast in the image of God.

And here’s the sermon to myself today, and to all the other first-time pastors out there who have ever heard that the called will always be questioning their call, always be struggling, always be wrestling, always be suffering under the burden of that yoke named “calling”:

What makes you called is NOT the fact that you question your calling, that you sometimes fear or despise your calling, that you feel wholly inadequate to your calling. These are merely common symptoms of calling, not reasons for the calling. What makes you called is that God calls you. What makes you called is that the Living God wants you on God’s side.

Claim it! Shout it! If you are too self-conscious, use the words of Scripture and let them speak the truth that you don’t know how to yet:

My soul lifts up the Lord!
My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
For though I’m God’s humble servant, God has noticed me….
For the Mighty One has done great things for me. Luke 1.46-49

Do not let your desire to be polite, or “humble” by this world’s standards cause you to stumble into the sin of demeaning God’s good work in you.

Dear friends, do not forget that you are dust, but always remember that you are also being refined into gold.